Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Enablers Anonymous

The John Edwards saga is beginning to recede from public consciousness, but not without a final spasm, this time, about Elizabeth Edwards.

Opinion is divided. Some consider Elizabeth to be a martyr, a victim of her husband's bad character, a woman who suffered mental anguish in order to keep her family together and to protect her children. Others have accused her of being a co-conspirator, more the problem than the solution.

In this last camp we find the Washington Post's Sally Quinn. In a column last week Quinn implied that Elizabeth Edwards should be joining Hillary Clinton and Silda Spitzer at their Enablers Anonymous meetings.

By which she meant that Elizabeth enabled her husband by allowing him to run for president. She does not, of course, suggest that his adultery reflects on how good a wife she was.

In Quinn's own words: "The problem is: SHE LET HIM DO IT. She not only agreed to his run for the presidency, she encouraged him to do it, knowing the toll it would take on the family given her health problems. But, worse, she let him do it knowing that he had had an affair."

High dudgeon, indeed.

From the little I know of Sally Quinn-- no more than appears in the press-- I would choose her to be the perfect arbiter of the moral complexities of the Edwards debacle. Can you imagine anyone more sensible, more ethical, more politically savvy than Sally Quinn. I cannot.

That is why it pains me to disagree with her. Look at it this way. Say that a man has tickets to the Super Bowl. The morning of the game his wife falls ill; she spikes a fever. No one knows what is wrong with her. She is taken to the emergency room and is hooked up to tubes and monitors. She is floating in and out of consciousness.

Imagine that at some point she opens her eyes and tells her husband not to worry about her. The fever will soon subside; the doctors are doing everything they can. He does not need to stay with her. She wants him to go to the game. She will still be there when he comes back.

Does this mean that she is letting him go to the game? Does it mean that he is encouraging him to abandon her, the better to increase her stress level?


She is saying that she knows how important the game is. She is showing that she regrets the fact that her illness is causing him to miss it. She is being considerate and empathic. She is not telling him what to do or what not to do.

In fact, she is leaving the decision up to him.

Her encouragement is a ploy. If a man does not know enough to scrap his plans while his wife is in the ER, then nothing she can say will make him change his mind.

She is giving him the option of making a free choice, without pressure and without taking sides one way or the other.

Wives and husbands tend to avoid telling each other what to do. At least, if they have learned how best to get along with each other. Spouses do not really give each other permission to do this or that. Most of them know that pushing one way or the other will merely elicit push-back.

So Elizabeth granted John the freedom to make his own decision about his own political future. She knew that the best way to do that was to offer encouragement. Had she refused to take a position-- You make up your own mind, honey-- he would have understood it as pressure against his candidacy.

So, my advice to husbands: when you have to choose between doing the right thing and doing what your wife is telling you to do, pray that the two are the same. If they are not, do the right thing. That is what she really wants you to do anyway.

What do you think would have happened if John Edwards had told his wife that, under the circumstances, he had decided to forgo his run for the presidency because the time was not right for the family. do you think that Elizabeth would have thrown him out of the house for being a sanctimonious wimp?

Even if we accept, as Sally Quinn says, that Elizabeth Edwards should have known the difficulties and risks of a candidacy, doesn't that mean that John Edwards should have known it too? Would it be too much to expect that a real man would know enough to put his political ambition on hold, even if that meant rejecting his wife's encouragement.

One more word about the notion of enabling. A wife is not her husband's keeper. The fact that a wife cannot stop her husband from indulging bad habits does not mean that she has offered tacit encouragement. It may make for a better story, but it oversimplifies complex decision-making.

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